ALMA Matters

From/de Gerald Schieven
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2016)

Cycle 4 Call for Proposals

On March 22, the JAO will issue a call for ALMA proposals for Cycle 4, with observations starting 4 October 2016 and running through to the end of September 2017. The proposal deadline is 21 April. Several new capabilities are being offered in Cycle 4, including mm-wave VLBI, solar observing, stand-alone Atacama Compact Array (ACA) proposals, and long-term proposals (>50h). Check the Proposer’s Guide available from the ALMA Science Portal for the full list of capabilities and details about proposing.

Those who would like an in-depth introduction to proposing with ALMA may wish to attend one of the workshops being held March 31 at McMaster University and April 8 at DAO in Victoria. See the next item for more information.

ALMA Days Workshops

The Millimetre Astronomy Group (MAG) at NRC, in their capacity as members of the NAASC supporting ALMA users in North America, will host two “ALMA Days” prior to the Cycle 4 ALMA proposal deadline (21 April 2016). These follow a very successful NRAO Live! event at McGill University in Montreal run by NRAO’s NAASC members with assistance from Brenda Matthews from the MAG. In the coming weeks, members of the MAG will provide 1-day workshops at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON (31 March) and at DAO in Victoria, BC (8 April) to assist those planning ALMA proposals. The focus will be on presenting the ALMA facility, new capabilities and changes to previous modes for Cycle 4, the Observing Tool and using ALMA simulators.

Participants should bring a laptop with the ALMA OT (and CASA — the ALMA DR software — if they wish to test the simulator) installed.

Topics to be covered include:

  • ALMA Overview + Cycle 4 Capabilities
  • Basics of Radio Interferometry
  • The Proposal Process and the Path of ALMA Observations
  • Overview of the ALMA OT
  • Hands-on Session with the OT for proposal preparation
  • The ALMA Simulator Tool in CASA

Those interested in attending should communicate with Brenda Matthews (

Forum on Canadian Future of Ground-Based Submm Astronomy, Friday June 3 in Winnipeg

ALMA is now approaching full operations and many members of our Canadian community have applied to and used this facility to further their research goals. At the same time, several groups in Canada are actively involved in ALMA Development opportunities to further the scientific capabilities of this ground-breaking facility (see two reports below). Our community faces a less certain future regarding access to single dish facilities, however. There continues to be uncertainty around CCAT’s schedule and funding status. These difficulties are having an impact on CCAT’s design (such as removing the enclosure) that may affect the potential science of this planned facility. Many researchers in the Canadian community continue to work to maintain Canada’s status in the CCAT project. At the same time, our access to the EAO-operated JCMT has an indeterminate future beyond Jan 31 2017. Access to PI time on the JCMT is open for now to all members of the Canadian community, and many members of the community are involved in the new wave of large surveys with the JCMT. The amount of PI time however is limited. NRC is no longer involved in the management of the JCMT on behalf of the Canadian community, but those actively utilizing JCMT for their science are exploring avenues to provide new instrumentation to the facility.

Given the recommendation of the MTR panel, specifically: “Recommendation: The MTRP reaffirms the importance of next generation single-dish sub-mm facilities, and recommends that Canadian astronomers continue to pursue participation in CCAT, subject to the project meeting its original science goals”, the timing is right for the community to have a frank and open discussion about access to CCAT and JCMT, the timelines for each, and the distribution of effort to ALMA and either or both of these single dish facilities.

Interested members of the community are therefore invited to a face-to-face meeting on the “Status and Future of ground-based submillimetre astronomy in Canada” to follow the CASCA AGM on Friday, 3 June 2016. We will hold the meeting in the CASCA meeting venue from 9am to 12:30pm. The agenda is not yet decided, but we will ask for updates on the three facilities and have lots of time for discussion. There is no charge to attend. We do ask those planning to attend to indicate their interest via email to Erik Rosolowsky ( by 27 May 2016.

Call for Development Study Proposals

All interested parties within the North American ALMA partnership are invited to submit proposals for “Development Studies of Upgrades for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)”. Proposals are due 2 May, 2016. Full information about this call, and the level of funding available, can be found at the following link:

This Call is to invite proposals to conduct studies of ideas that may be further developed and implemented in a subsequent funding cycle. The primary aims of this Call for Project Proposals are to:

  • encourage the flow of development ideas from the North American ALMA operations community into the ALMA Development Program Plan;
  • support the development of conceptual and detailed designs by the North American ALMA operations community for possible future inclusion in the ALMA Development Program Plan; and
  • support ALMA-relevant, long-term research and development by the North American operations community.

For examples of ALMA Development Projects that began as Development Studies, see the next two items on CARTA and on Band 3 upgrades.

CARTA – An ALMA Data Analysis and Visualization Tool

Through the ALMA Development Program, the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary are collaborating with NRAO to create CARTA — the Cube Analysis and Rendering Tool for Astronomy. CARTA is a visualization project that aims to provide the functionality of the CASA viewer combined with the stability and performance that comes with a modern application. Currently, the CARTA project has developed the core application and is rapidly implementing new features to deliver the tools that radio astronomy users need. The CARTA project will deliver the software to the ALMA project on Sept. 1st where it will become part of the CASA software package. If you would like to participate in the beta testing of CARTA, please contact Erik Rosolowsky ( or visit our webpage to download a beta version.

Band 3 Cartridge Upgrades

Over the past few years, the Millimetre Instrumentation Group at NRC Herzberg in Victoria has been developing and testing options for improving the stability of the Band 3 receivers on ALMA. The solution adopted, block heaters for on-demand magnetic field defluxing of the SIS mixers, has been implemented and validated on one cartridge which has now arrived in Chile. Over the next few years, this upgrade should be gradually applied to all Band 3 cartridges as the Front End cryostats cycle through the ALMA laboratory for routine maintenance. This should result in improved power stability with an additional small enhancement in sensitivity.

ALMA Instructional Videos

The NRC MAG has been producing instructional videos for ALMA. The most recent is a short (6 minute) film on using single-dish data to estimate ALMA sensitivity requirements. An earlier video explores what “Largest Angular Structure” and “Maximum Recoverable Scale” mean.

Jim Hesser is awarded the Schneider Medal

From/de Marilyne Lavoie, Media Relations Officer, NRC
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2016)

Dr. James (Jim) Hesser, an internationally known astronomer and accomplished NRC manager, is the recipient of the 2015 W.G. Schneider Medal. Dr. Hesser exemplifies the criteria set for the award, which recognizes those who have made outstanding contributions to NRC “above and beyond” the expectations of their job duties and who exemplify NRC values.

Dr. Hesser’s career is marked by decades of scientific leadership and public service in global astronomy and astrophysics. After receiving his PhD from Princeton and starting his astronomy career in Chile, Jim joined NRC as a research officer (RO) in 1977. His leadership skills were soon recognized and in 1986 he was appointed Director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO) in Victoria, BC.

Throughout this 36-year tenure at NRC Dr. Hesser oversaw scientific and technology development work that helped Canada advance its global presence in world astronomy. His service in high offices of all major North American professional societies in his field, as well as on the boards of preeminent international observatories, has strengthened the network of global collaborations that characterize NRC’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics (NRC Herzberg) programs today.

Jim’s impact has also been profound on NRC and on the broad Canadian astronomy community. Dr. Hesser’s research on the chemical evolution of the early universe through the study of star clusters was ground-breaking and helped attract top talent to NRC for many years. His mentoring helped many prominent astronomers develop their professional careers. Through his long-time involvement in the Victoria chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) and the volunteer-based Scientists and Innovators in the Schools, Jim has done much to bring astronomy to the public at large, culminating with his work as Canadian Chair of the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.

Jim retired as DAO Director – the longest serving in the observatory’s history – in 2014, but his service continues. As Strategic Advisor to the General Manager for NRC Herzberg, he continues to mentor students and researchers while strengthening important stakeholder relationships. This relationship building has contributed to the establishment of the not-for-profit “Friends of the DAO Society” dedicated to supporting science outreach activities at the purpose- built visitor centre playfully named the Centre of the Universe (CU). CU is located adjacent to the NRC observatory’s historic Plaskett telescope.

As NRC celebrates its Centennial year just ahead of the Centennial of that pioneering telescope named after DAO’s founding Director John Stanley Plaskett, it is certainly fitting that an astronomer of Jim Hesser’s calibre is the recipient of the Schneider Medal. “John Plaskett put Canada’s observatory on the map,” notes NRC Herzberg GM Greg Fahlman. “Jim’s legacy is helping keep it there.”

TMT Update – March 2016

By/par Ray Carlberg
(Cassiopeia – Spring/printemps 2016)

TMT planned to have first light in 2017, which would have been wonderful. However, like virtually all major observatories (recall HST, JWST, ALMA) TMT has suffered some (completely novel) bumps in the road. We first lost five years with a funding problem when AURA was removed from the project. Since then we put together a new partnership, collected over a billion dollars and made the decision to release it for construction in April 2015.

The following is my assessment of about where we are, which is largely factual but includes my views of some of the risks and issues that the project must face.

On Dec 2, 2015 the Hawaii Supreme Court (HSC) struck down the Conservation District Use Permit from the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources to the University of Hawaii. TMT itself was not directly involved (the parties were the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the University of Hawaii), although the decision terminates TMT site activity in Hawaii. The HSC identified a process error; in that the permit was granted before a contested case procedure was allowed. The full decision also notes that Conservation Districts have a number of considerations for use and Native Hawaiian consultations that were not clearly followed in the permit process. Independent of the legal situation, the statewide opposition is about 25%, with roughly 60% Native Hawaiians opposed. Canadians would expect to build a major science facility where the local population shares in our excitement of science and views the facility as an item of local pride. Even when TMT had a legal permit, political protest was more than sufficient to prevent site access.

We were invited by a wide ranging group of Hawaiians to consider Mauna Kea as a site. What happened to that support? The concerns about over-use of Mauna Kea arose in the 1990’s and led to the defeat of the Keck outrigger telescope project. A response in Hawaii was to create the Master Plan of 2000, which provided a way forward for astronomy, but at the same time laid out a plan to better regulate the mountain. The MP2000 identified a site for a future giant telescope, which has turned into the TMT site. One aspect of MP2000 is that the TMT site was to be the last site to be developed, leading one US astronomy leader to state that “American astronomy has no long term future in Hawaii”, since in the course of time any astronomy program will inevitably want to build larger, more powerful facilities, which cannot be done under the MP2000. Many, including the Governor of the State, see the Master Plan as not achieving its goals, with Mauna Kea continuing to be over-developed for tourism and insufficient access control. TMT has also become a rallying point for a range of environmental and Native Hawaiian issues, united around stopping TMT. Unless there is a resolution of the Hawaiian situation soon, there will be no support in Canada to continue in Hawaii.

What now? TMT has publicly stated that it plans to restart construction in April 2018 or sooner. To allow the partners to have their resources ready requires that there be a site for which the legal and all other aspects of site access are clearly resolved mid-2017. A good thing is that key Canadian deliverables are not significantly site dependent. We are supplying the enclosure, with Canadian work deliverable items being installed above a base ring and foundation which are costs shared across the project. The Mauna Kea enclosure design can withstand ice-storms and hurricanes, which as a by-product ensure that it can withstand massive earthquakes. The enclosure could be built to the current design and installed almost anywhere. The first light AO system does take into account Mauna Kea atmospheric conditions, but much of what makes AO work is software control which can be modified for a new site.

As of March 1, representatives of the TMT partners have started to travel to various countries and sites that might be suitable sites to host TMT. At the moment this is a fairly wide ranging initiative including sites in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere. Wherever TMT is built it will need to have scientific opportunities that do not simply replicate those available through E-ELT or GMT. Moreover, the decade long delay in getting going means that TMT will need to think carefully about instruments beyond the few initial workhorses to develop powerful competitive instruments that address science, likely in a post-JWST world. So, the good news is that we again have a feasible baseline plan and can be excited about scientific and technical engagement in this great project.

Clearly we would never have selected Hawaii as our preferred site if we had known that we would fail. Given the investment in Hawaii and the many people there who have supported TMT, we need to continue to give Hawaii a chance. It is important to emphasize that a number of people, some associated with TMT, many others in Hawaii, are working hard to help Hawaii be a viable TMT site. However, the pace of activity in Hawaii is not encouraging given our schedule needs. The site permit decision took nearly three months to be remanded back from the courts to the BLNR for them to take action on revising their process to one that could be legally acceptable. Typically the legal steps in getting a permit take about a year, after which the court challenges will start. Although there is ongoing discussion in Hawaii, the opponents remain opposed and are generally believed to have gone from essentially no professional legal support, to potentially very effective and seasoned legal representation. Beyond the law, of course people need to welcome TMT sufficiently that construction can proceed unimpeded. There is also the issue of extending the master lease beyond 2033, which would be essential for TMT and of great interest to a number of other observatories. Some in Hawaii would like to see the summit gradually cleared of all observatories. The Governor’s ten point plan to require that 25% of existing telescopes be removed before TMT is operational is a development that some will see as an encouraging first step in that direction. At the moment the situation does not look all that promising. But, it is not over until it is over and the stakes are fairly high for issues well beyond TMT and astronomy. In the end it is an issue for Hawaiians to solve and they will not be rushed. That is why alternative sites are being assessed with action to be taken soon to maintain schedule.

We very much need to bear in mind that ESO has begun construction of the E-ELT. The ESO finance committee recently approved the procurement of the dome and telescope of the E-ELT, so they are now well on the way. Their plan is to have first light in 2027 under a conservative plan with the existing ESO members. If Brazil joins then they anticipate first light in 2024. GMT continues to move forward with its first light 4 mirror plan (sort-of a double LBT) which gathers a lot more light than an 8m and can do interesting AO work. We need a very good site soon.